Can’t take a joke (Charlie Hebdo, Part 2)

Early autumn 1972, a small town in the mid-Hudson Valley of New York State.  I was in the sixth grade, and one of the first girls in my class to need a bra.  Not a “training bra” (a fairly ridiculous phrase; what does such a thing train breasts to do?), but a real, grown-up lady bra with straps and two rows of  hooks that actually supported something that hadn’t been there a few months before, and could not be hidden with less than four layers of clothing on my upper body.

It was a warm September day, it was recess time, and we had to play kickball.  I was (and continue to be) active but un-athletic, usually among the very last to be picked for a team, and definitely never the kid who would win the game.  So, last picked, last in the lineup, standing around waiting for my turn to embarrass myself and provide amusement to most of the sixth grade.  Because there were a lot of kids ahead of me, and a fair number  had taken their turn and gone to the end of the line until they were “at bat” again, I was in the middle of the group.

A couple of boys thought it would be fun to start snapping the back band of my bra, and to make rude comments about my normal, if early, physical development while they were at it.  Asking them to stop did no good.  Asking the (female) teaching aides to make them stop did no good.  Asking the teacher to stop them did no good (still the era of “boys will be boys”, and it’s hard for an eleven year old girl to explain to her male teacher that she’d prefer those boys not mess with her undergarments).  A number of the other girls thought it was hilarious as well, and were encouraging them (because girls like it when boys are being boys, and the boys like it when the girls like them).

Not liking people touching me without  my permission, I did what the average eleven year old whose patience and politeness were having no effect, and had asked for (but not received) help from appropriate adults, might do–I started hitting people.  It didn’t matter who it was–male, female, big or small, if they were anywhere near me, they were likely to get a fist, foot, knee, or elbow wherever I could reach.

Finally the teacher (usually a good guy who I adored) intervened.  There were one or two bloody noses, a loosened tooth, one kid holding her side, and a few cupping their crotches. A teacher’s aide ushered them to the school nurse; another aide escorted me to the principal’s office. (I had some bruises and scratches, and a handful or two of hair had been pulled out.)

The instigator, clutching his testicles, flipped me an obscene gesture as he was being taken away for first aid, and yelled, “Can’t take a joke, can you?”

I got detention–a lot of detention.  That was entirely right, because that was the punishment for physical aggression, and I was demonstrably guilty as charged.  Although I’m not sure whether keeping someone after school and forcing her to do homework in silence is really a punishment for a straight-A student who liked school and would rather do nothing but read quietly for an hour a day. If I “learned” anything, it was that the occasional appearance in detention, alongside the  thugs who intermittently tormented me up until graduation, was a way to gain respect amongst the seedier elements of the Wappingers Central School District, and keep bullying at least temporarily at bay.

The boys who instigated and participated in what would now be called “inappropriate touch” and “creating a hostile environment” with their words about my breasts, however, went un-punished. The failure on the part of those who were supposed to make the school a safe environment for all students (and, had they acted appropriately, the whole incident might not have occurred), was, to my knowledge, unremarked.

Yesterday, at the end of my session in the hand clinic, I was chatting with my therapist (as one does) while she was stretching, twisting, and bending my fingers and wrist.  The topic turned to Charlie Hebdo.  Her observation was that the cartoonists were acting like “playground bullies” trying to “see how much further they could push” the kids they were tormenting.

This morning’s paper confirmed that insight.  I opened the Buffalo News to an article seconded from the New York Times, and read the following comments from Renald Luzier, the cartoonist who lampooned the Prophet Muhammad (and is probably only alive because he was late to work on the day of the attack):

I had the idea to draw Muhammad because he is my character.  Because he exists when I draw him, because he is a character that caused our premises to be firebombed, and later to be treated as irresponsible provocateurs–while we are above all cartoonists who love to draw little guys, like when we were children.

The terrorists have been children, too.  They drew like all the children do, and then they lost their sense of humor.

Set aside, for just a moment, that Muhammad has quite a separate existence from Luzier’s pen–it is at best an extreme arrogance to assume that he is only the “character” of this cartoonist (if the Prophet only existed when the cartoonist called him into existence, there would be no cause for offense).

His entire statement, as recorded in the New York Times, is the language of bullies who wish to claim no responsibility for having caused offense, and are shocked when they are visited with consequences.

He complains that he, and his fellow “satirists” (an arrogant claim, given that the work does not rise to the level of satire) are not “irresponsible provocateurs.”  How can they not realize that they are likely to cause offense?  Offense is exactly what they exist to create.  Choosing to do it again, after his colleagues (and an appalling number of truly innocent people) have died–how is that anything other than “irresponsible”?

He claims that he and his colleagues are just doing what they did when they were children.  You want to act like children, fine–but expect to be treated like children when you give offense. If you want the protections accorded to children, you can only have them if you also accept the restrictions placed on children.

And the most important:  They lost their sense of humor.

The language bullies throw out when they’ve been exposed as bullies.  Blame their targets. Treat it as a joke.

Religious leaders across the world have come out in support of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, championing the right of free expression.  This is correct.  But without more nuanced speech, they risk being mistaken (and I sincerely hope it would be a mistake) as aligning themselves with the repugnant ideas represented by that free expression.  Can we defend free expression without condoning horrible ideas, such as the bigotry expressed in these cartoons?

Religious leaders throughout the United States, and in many other countries, also promote themselves as champions of anti-bullying campaigns.  They’re all over You Tube and Facebook, and the start of a school year usually brings them out of the woodwork.

Letting Charlie Hebdo off the hook, not challenging Luzier’s complaint that he and his fellow “satirists” are falsely seen as “irresponsible provocateurs”, and making them out as martyrs to free expression, is a hypocrisy on the part of anyone who claims that bullying is evil.

The actions of those who committed murder in reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were extreme, and inappropriate.  But the paper’s intent is to cause offense.  Courageous “free expression” needs to be clear about what its purpose is, and to take some responsibility.  The kind of mealy-mouthed crap that Renald Luzier has spewed lacks courage and integrity.

Courage and integrity are criteria for martyrdom.  Not hiding behind “like when we were children” (you’re supposed to be adults, now, if you haven’t noticed), or blaming your targets  with “lost their sense of humor.”

As with those who touched me inappropriately and told me “Can’t take a joke” when they sneezed out their testicles, my response might be judged as disproportionate.  But my classmates were not blameless, and should have been called to some accountability for their share in the discomfort they suffered as a consequence of their actions.

Let me say, once again very clearly, murder was an inappropriate and disproportional response to the offense of the Charlie Hebdo staff.  But the Charlie Hebdo staff created the offense–deliberately.  Blaming their targets for the offense these cartoonists and writers willingly and knowingly committed does not deserve veneration as martyrs to the cause of free expression.

And thinking people must not participate in the hypocrisy and blindness that such veneration entails.

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